On a Saturday night in late February, Coldplay are in their North London headquarters, listening to mixes of new songs. After spending months writing and recording with producer Brian Eno, the band is now painstakingly wrapping up its fourth album, Viva la Vida or Death And All His Friends. A few weeks ago, Eno jetted off to work on U2's new disc, leaving Coldplay to mix, record overdubs and argue over which tracks to include. "I heard a Bono quote once that said, 'Bands shouldn't break up over money, they should break up over the track listing,'" says frontman Chris Martin. "Nothing could be more pertinent at this point."
Earlier in the day, the group agreed on a core of six songs to anchor the album -- and swore to finally stop recording and focus on mixing. While the other three members sit in a lounge listening to a mix of their new Afro-pop-influenced song "Strawberry Swing," Martin bursts out of the studio and asks guitarist Jonny Buckland to recut some parts for "42." The track -- a thrilling three-part soundscape with multitracked pianos, swirling strings and looped beats -- is one of the songs everyone in the band loves and is a front-runner for first single.
With a quick eye roll, Buckland follows Martin into the studio, where they spend the next hour trying increasingly heavy guitar parts. Finally, with Martin pushing Buckland for one more take, the guitarist pushes back. "I think it's fine the way it is," he says, before agreeing to give it one more try. "It feels like we've been finishing the album for six months," Buckland says later. "The starting stage was enjoyable -- there wasn't too much hair-pulling. In the middle stage, suddenly you start thinking, 'Well, we've got to figure out which songs are good.' And this final stage, which has been going on for quite some time, is getting more and more intense."
With Viva la Vida or Death And All His Friends, Coldplay are making a sharp break from the piano-and-guitar-driven anthems that have been their biggest hits. "We felt like the first three albums were a trilogy, and we finished that," says Buckland. "We wanted to do something different."
The band plans to reintroduce itself with "Violet Hill," which will be given away in a promotion before Viva comes out. It opens with a jagged, distorted guitar riff and settles into a stalking, bluesy beat. Among the biggest changes on the disc is Martin's voice, which has largely shifted from his trademark falsetto into a deeper register. On "Yes," over an irresistible North African strings-and-percussion arrangement, he practically moans, "If you'd only, if you'd only say yes . . . I'm just so tired of this loneliness." "My singing teacher said that it got her aroused when I sang low," says Martin.
Despite the 11 million albums Coldplay have sold, the singer sees Viva as a make-or-break proposition. "This could be our last shot at the big time," he says. "It's something in my head, as in artistic relevance. There's a voice that comes at three in the morning with songs. There might come an age when you say, 'Ah, fuck it, I'm going to go back to sleep.' But I'm still at the point where I'll get up and work it out. Tom Waits or Bob Dylan said sometimes these things bug you until you deal with them. I suppose it's like the urge to masturbate." Adds bassist Guy Berryman, "Great bands -- Pink Floyd, the Beatles -- they're always exploring."
Back in the studio, close to 2 a.m., Buckland and Martin play the middle section of "42" over and over, trying to create the perfect guitar line. As it turns out, the late-night overdubs were inspired by an offhand comment Martin heard about the song sounding like Radiohead. "There's nothing wrong with sounding like Radiohead," Martin says. "It's just, when I hear it in my head, that's not how it sounds. We have to make it right."
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